James Harden is Bad for Basketball
Remember the days of the rip-through move in professional basketball? It was when an offensive player, usually at a standstill, would swing the ball upwards in an arc to purposefully make contact with the defender's outstretched arms, a move specifically designed to get the referee to call a foul on the defender. Since the offensive player could just throw the ball aimlessly at the rim upon swinging through, the foul would be a shooting foul and automatically result in two free throws (three if the attempted shot was a 3-pointer).
Even at the time when superstars used it, it was a whack move to use. Kobe did it. Kevin Durant did it. A non-negligible percentage of those shots actually ended up going in, so it wasn't an entirely stupid, but the intent of the play was clearly meant to exploit the rulebook. The NBA ended up changing the rule back in 2011, downgrading the foul call to a common foul instead of a shooting foul, meaning that free throws would not be awarded unless the defensive team was already over their foul limit for the quarter (and even if the shot was a 3-pointer, it would only be two free throws). The rationale was that it was an unnatural basketball move, which is correct – no player brings the ball up to their forehead in a semicircle before they shoot. After all, you don't want to reward a player who's just looking to get some cheap free throws. Right?
James Harden is currently on a tear. After his team underachieved to start the season, Harden has taken the #mambamentality to heart, averaging 34 points in one of the most efficient high-volume high-usage scoring seasons of all time, a raw point total that would be the highest since Kobe's 2006 rampage that saw the highest scoring average of the century. You'd think that such a story – the reigning MVP putting the team on his back in an incredible offensive display, a la Stephen Curry in 2016 – would be universally appreciated, but Harden seems to be one of the most hated stars by the general fan population. And it's for one specific reason – his free throws.
This season, Harden is averaging just over 11 free throws per game. Harden has led the league in free throw attempts per game every season since 2013 except for one, where he was a lowly second to his former teammate Kevin Durant. The raw number of attempts isn't by itself egregious, the league leader every year usually breaks 10 per game. But if Harden maintains this pace, he's on track to have the 12th-highest total number of free throws attempted in a single season, and he already holds the spots for the 24th, 44th, and 51st highest attempting seasons of all time. Those rankings might not seem particularly high, but almost everyone ahead of him on that list – Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Dwight Howard, and Bob Pettit – are big guys who are more likely to get fouls, some of whom (Shaq and Dwight in particular) are intentionally fouled because of their poor shooting percentage. The only guards above 24th are Jerry West (twice over fifty years ago) and Michael Jordan. For some more recent comparisons, LeBron's 2006 season ranked 59th, Kobe's aforementioned 2006 ranked 56th, and Russell Westbrook's MVP year ranked 43rd.
For free throws *made* in a single season, Harden already occupies the 8th, 13th, and 14th all-time spots, and is projected to take the 5th spot this season. In his last 17 games, he's attempted 18, 16, 11, 11, 15, 7, 9, 27, 14, 17, 7, 9, 18, 9, 16, 13, and 19 free throws, which averages to 14 (!) a game. Of his 34 points per game, almost 30% come from free throws. The league's second leading scorer, Steph Curry, averages five fewer points and six fewer free throw attempts. That is, if Curry played three extra minutes to match Harden's and in that time made up the extra free throws, he would be having just as torrid of a season, one that would count as historic given his superior shooting.
All that to say: dude shoots a lot of free throws. Which, on its own, should be fine right? He's not #1 in any of the categories we discussed, so there have been those that shot more. But it's not just about how many he shoots. It's also about how he earns those attempts – the quantity is simply a statement on how well he does it. James Harden does not make basketball plays. Harden excels at one of four maneuvers: (1) finding a way to entangle his limbs in his defender's, (2) sensing when the defender infinitesimally leans into him, (3) pinning a defender's arm with his body, and (4) sandwiching the defender between himself and a screener. In each of these situations, Harden creates the illusion of illegal contact, flails and throws his head backwards, and throws up a haphazard shot attempt.
It's infuriating in both execution and frequency, to the point where there are multiple video compilations documenting all of the ridiculous fouls he draws. One shows how he always initiates the contact, another shows how the excessive foul calls literally forced the Lakers to play defense with their hands behind their back, and yet another has five minutes of footage of just fouls drawn on three-point attempts. Every superstar gets cheap calls, but this is an example of a superstar manufacturing cheap calls. You could argue that LeBron gets the benefit of the whistle a few too many times a game, but even then, he's still getting shots very close to the rim that would have had a good chance of going in even if a foul weren't called. Harden, in contrast, doesn't appear to be interested in making the shot or playing actual basketball, he's content to let the referees do most of the work for him.
Imagine Kobe's rip-through move, except if he did it eight times a game, and he didn't even bother trying to make the shot every time. It would be obscene. At this point, even Rockets fans might roll their eyes and whisper, "well, if it gets us more points…"; they are trying to convince themselves that all of this is okay.
And the consequences of such a playstyle aren't just localized to Harden, they radiate to each player on the floor. The opposing team is demoralized after playing generally good defense on a player that is already difficult enough to guard. The fouls he gets count towards the opponents' foul limit for the quarter, such that every player on Harden's team will benefit with free throws once that limit is exceeded. The Rockets' current point-differential (the average spread) is +2.2, so on the whole the Rockets are barely winning games. This isn't simply an annoying byproduct of a chosen strategic approach, it's a tangible change in the game that affects wins and losses.
All of this is without even getting into the discussion about whether he travels – which he does. Harden has dissected the rules so carefully that he has large swaths of the media even questioning whether something that is an overt travel is even a travel. Legal action is defined as "upon gathering the ball, an offensive player may only take two steps before he must release the ball on the pass or shot attempt." That's clear enough; while your dribble is live you can tap dance if you want to, those steps don't count against you. But when your dribble ends, you can only take two steps. Harden's motion has blurred the lines of where the dribble ends, shifting the Overton window so far that it has resulted in the creation of an entirely fictitious 'gather' step, something that isn't mentioned in the NBA rulebook at all.
On the note of the rulebook, Harden's body of work has actually forced the league to adopt a new rule that's been colloquially named after him – a rare honor reserved for the likes of Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson. This so-called Harden Rule was supposed to stop the continuation in the same way the modified swing-through rule did, so you'd have to definitively be in a shooting motion for the foul to be called a shooting foul. Ever adaptive, Harden responded by exaggerating his motions and timing the sweet-spot of exactly when to flail, and he's getting more freebies than ever.
While at one point it may have been hard to be mad at him for simply 'pushing the limits of the rules' as they were written, the Harden fatigue has reached a point where any remaining goodwill has dried up. And it's truly a shame, because Harden's skillset is otherwise unparalleled. He's the first player in decades to lead the league in points and assists, a unique offensive weapon who is somehow the standard bearer for both made three-pointers and also free throws attempted. But that doesn't make it any less difficult to root for him.
On a more spiritual level, it's just not what the game is supposed to be about. If you play with your friends at the gym, or play pickup at your local park, you don't shoot free throws when someone calls a foul. You get possession of the ball back and you try to score again, because getting the ball in the basket is actually what matters. The 1980s are often glorified as the last true era of 'hard-nosed, tough' basketball, which just meant that you had free reign to clothesline someone and not get kicked out of the game for it. Back then, you could be an asshole and it was okay. But they changed the rules so that you couldn't do that, because we decided that we don't want to be a game of assholes. Harden's the kind of asshole to flex when he makes an and-1 layup, and wilt like a flower in the wind upon the faintest bit of contact. And that's not okay either.